Jump-start Your Brain

Will transcranial direct current stimulation make us all into geniuses?

Illustration by John Ueland.

A nine-volt battery could be the only thing standing between you and the brain you’ve always wanted. Doctors and U.S. Army -researchers have discovered that they can bring about a dramatic increase in intelligence and intense concentration, often referred to as “flow,” by running a low current through the skull. Sound like a scene from Frankenstein? It’s more common than you’d think. The technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), has been used therapeutically for decades on sufferers of strokes or chronic pain. Placing electrodes on various points on the scalp juices specific brain circuitry, says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. When applied correctly, tDCS causes the brain to function better than it can on its own.

Pascual-Leone thinks tDCS will eventually make its way into mass medicine — a Michigan-based startup is currently working on a $99 do-it-yourself prototype called GoFlow — but not before a few safety questions are addressed. For example, Pascual-Leone notes that researchers have yet to determine the optimal number and duration of sessions for each diagnosis. “All of these are very, very important questions that we still don’t have really good data on,” he says. Then there’s the ethical problem: How far is too far to push the enhancement of human abilities?